Fishing for Ancestors

I have recently been preparing an article for the May issue of Going In-Depth about Fishwives and Herring Girls but my thoughts have also turned to sources for the men in our families who put to sea in search of food. Fishing is one of the oldest occupations and those who performed this, often hazardous, task were vital members of the community.

There is a difference between those who fished on a daily basis, staying close to the shore and those who were away for many months, visiting more distant fishing grounds. Census returns record those who were at home on the night of the enumeration, so fishing families were often ‘headless’ as the man of the house was away at sea, making it more difficult to trace these family lines. I thought that I would share some sources for fishing ancestors.

The trade between European ports and the cod banks off Newfoundland were established in the seventeenth century and are well documented. Although ‘over-wintering’ was strongly discouraged and most of these fishermen returned home after the fishing season, some remained. There are therefore strong links between fishing ports on both sides of the Atlantic, with emigration paths forging those links. Those from particular fishing ports on the coast of south-west England tended to settle in specific parts of Newfoundland, creating colies of people with their origins in Dartmouth, Devon or Poole, Dorset, for example. Gordon Handcock explains this very well in Soe Longe as there come noe women: origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland (Global Heritage Press 2003).

For background to the Atlantic fisheries see:

Some general hints on tracing British fishermen can be found on the Mariners’ Website but I have found some interesting websites that relate to particular aspects of British fishing. For example, focuses on fishing from the south coast port of Hastings, Sussex. It includes a lengthy list of those who were fishing from the port in 1623, taken from a document that is held in The National Archives. It also gives information about the various nicknames adopted by the men from Hastings fishing families. Are you related to Tambourine Jack Cobby, Hard Pudding White or Rum Cheese Tassell?

Then there is the list of Lost Trawlermen of Hull. This gives details of the casualty, his age, ship, on-board occupation and information about the cause of death. In some cases there are photographs of the victims.

The website of the British Southern Whale Fishery contains entries on 13,500 individuals dating from 1775 to 1859. The details are mainly taken from Board of Trade records held in the National Archives. You can find out about the ships on which these individuals served, their ages and birthplaces.

For more information see:

Wilcox, Martin Fishing and Fishermen: a guide for family historians (Pen & Sword 2012).
Notes on the History of Australian Fishing
Fishing in New Zealand
Atlantic Cod Fishing

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

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